Teaching NO: Early Toddler Discipline


Right around 15-18 months, something happens to our cherubs. 

The sweet, innocent faces full of unconditional peace and love. The faces that gleamed with big, toothy grins simply because we walked in the room. Those faces.... Get an attitude.

I remember the day my cherub changed. She was playing gleefully on the floor with a big box of foam blocks. Suddenly, she stopped stacking. She turned 90 degrees to face me directly, and threw a block at my forehead! I was totally blindsided. The throw was unprovoked, unexpected, and so un-cherub-like.

I looked as sternly as I could into her shimmering blue eyes. At that moment I expected her to immediately stop what she was doing. She should give me a hug. She should look sad and apologetic.

Instead, she laughed! In my face. At my pain. No remorse. No sad, apologetic hug in sight. The nerve.

And that was it. The day she threw the block was the day she changed into a real person. One with thoughts and actions independent of my own. One who could begin to make her own choices. And most importantly, as her parent, that was the day that my job description changed from “keep young infant alive” to “keep her alive and teach her how to be a good person.”

It was a whole new ballgame.

But, what to do? She was too little for time-out. She could not physically say the words “I’m sorry.” But completely ignoring the deliberate throw? That did not seem right either.

It was time to teach NO.

How to teach NO to a toddler: 

NO is an important safety word to use as kids are growing up. It is universal. Every caregiver knows it. It is a tool to use to keep you children out of harm’s way, and to negatively reinforce undesired behavior.

NO is different than the conversational word, no. NO is spoken firmly, deeply, and loudly. It contains a clear auditory distinction from conversational no.

Some examples of conversational no include:

  • "No, the sky is not orange."
  • "No, Daddy does not like to eat hair."
  • "Does the cow say meow? No, the cow says moo.”
  • “No, thank you.”

The tone of no is clearly distinct from the following directive word:


Note that the word NO in the example above does not include extraneous explanation, justification, or additional jibber-jabber attached. It is complete and effective standing alone. NO’s value is in its simplicity and brevity. NO is NO.

In order for NO to be NO, it cannot be used all the time. NO is different. NO should only be used to stop your kiddo in her tracks. She should reflexively look at you because she knows it is unique. It’s a word that is not spoken very often. A word that carries weight.

To be most effective, NO needs to be defined to specific situations. Situational consistency in the use of the word will increased its effectiveness over time. As you are beginning to use NO with your toddler, determine 3-5 places or situations that NO will be used. Discuss these with your spouse and other caregivers so all of you are on the same page.

In my opinion, NO situations may include:

  • Hair pulling, hitting, biting, or other observed physical aggression. 
  • Safety boundaries; hot stove, electrical outlets, city streets, for example. 

At the time of the observed NO situation, speak your firm NO. If it is a “safety boundary” violation, pick her up and move her to a safe place. No eye contact. No discussion. Then, walk away. 

If it is an “aggressive” violation, use a firm NO. If she has hit/bit you, immediately put her down and walk away. If the violation is towards another individual, pull her away from the situation and give your complete attention towards the victim

The word NO, plus your perceived lack of engagement works in combination to discourage the undesired behavior. As a result, she may cry or be upset. If so, wait 30-60 seconds to attend to her so she knows that your attention will not be immediate when she misbehaves. 

For other toddler lesser-offenses, think of an alternative negative phrase. For example:

  • “Not for Sally. This is for Mommy.”
  • “No, no Sally. We don’t dig in the houseplants.”
  • “Not right now, honey. Dinner is coming.”

These phrases should be used in addition to physically redirecting her or offering a distraction. Expect her response to these lesser-offenses to be more playful and less consistent.

Using NO is this fashion will make the positive attention for good behaviors more effective. Good deeds are met with positive words, hugs, and eye contact to encourage more of the same. Don’t forget that NO will discourage behavior we don’t like, but it is the positive attention that will actually change toddler behavior for the better.

Bottom line: Use effective, limited NO. Use an alternative phrase to redirect most undesired behaviors. Look for many opportunities to praise and encourage. Get your new parenting job description off to a great start! 

Good luck!